Pakistan offered cautious return to democracy move

With President Clinton due to make a brief stop in Islamabad on his way home from India tomorrow, Pakistan's military strongman General Pervez Musharraf yesterday threw down a welcome mat of sorts by announcing a slow and cautious return to partial democracy.

He said a first round of local elections would be held across the country between December this year and May 2001. A second round of local elections at the district level would then be held in July 2001, putting municipal governments back in control of local affairs.

But Bill Clinton's welcome mat has two large holes. The self-styled "chief executive" of Pakistan, who gave the elected prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, the boot in a bloodless coup last October, has failed to drop any hints as to the timing of a return to federal democracy, with the emergence of a civilian to take over the reins of government.On the basis of his statements to date, that could still be years away. Secondly, he has banned political parties from contesting the promised local elections.

Demonstrating his noted grasp of liberal-sounding rhetoric, General Musharraf said in Islamabad, on the occasion of Pakistan's National Day: "We want to empower the impoverished, the people at the grassroots level. Democracy starts here, at the district and local government level. From here we will move up step by step to provincial and federal [elections] in due course."General Musharraf's election programme means that he has now begun to take on the feudal hegemony that holds Pakistan in thrall. But the measures will mean little without radical reform of land tenure.

Mr Clinton's "working visit" may not be accompanied by much warmth on either side. Mr Clinton has been seen by Indian commentators to be edging closer to Indian positions.

OnWednesday he accused "elements within the Pakistan government" of having "supported those engaged in violence in Kashmir".

Pakistan always insists it offers only moral support to Kashmir's "freedom fighters".

Asked to comment on Mr Clinton's remark, General Musharraf restated the Pakistani line. "No part of the government is involved in any violence," he said yesterday. "I totally disagree [with the US President's view]."

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